Skaluba denied new trial
ALPENA — An Alpena man who currently is in prison for a string of sexual assaults at a series of 2016 parties was denied a new trial during a motion hearing in 26th Circuit Court on Wednesday.
Nick Skaluba was found guilty in May of several criminal sexual conduct charges and sentenced to 16 years to life in prison for drugging and sexually assaulting a pair of girls. A third victim later came forward and testified, but charges against Skaluba were never filed for that incident.
The News does not name victims in sexual assault cases.
Claiming mistakes and overzealousness by Alpena County Prosecutor Ed Black, Skaluba’s attorneys had asked the court to grant him a new trial. That motion was denied on Wednesday by Judge George Mertz, of the 46th Circuit Court, who presided over Skaluba’s case after 26th Circuit Court Judge Michael Mack recused himself without providing a reason.
An appeal of the case to the Michigan Court of Appeals is now expected.
In his opening remarks to the court on Wednesday, defense attorney Matt Wojda said Black influenced the jury during opening and closing remarks of the spring trial by saying Skaluba was a hunter and the girls were his prey. He said jurors also were improperly influenced by Black saying Skaluba collected underwear as a trophy, a fact that was proved false during testimony.
Jurors were impacted in a way that some of them may not have been able to be unbiased, Wojda argued.
“We maintain that Nick Skaluba is actually innocent, and we believes the errors that were made by the prosecutor seriously impacted the fairness, integrity, and public perception of the case,” Wojda said. “We believe the prosecutor painted our client in a false light and told the jury something that was extremely prejudicial in the opening and closing, directly contradicted by sworn testimony of the prosecution’s own witnesses and not supported by a single thread of evidence.”
Wojda also claimed Black used social problems to cast influence on the jury and didn’t use special care to prevent rising emotions caused by those issues.
Skaluba’s case was closely watched by the community and sparked a downtown rally after Thompson Hein, also charged with crimes related to the assaults, received a sentence some saw as too light.
Black told Mertz nothing was said or done during the trial that improperly motivated or persuaded the jury to convict Skaluba. He said everything that was said during opening and closing arguments was based on the evidence and testimony from either the preliminary examination in 88th District Court or during trial.
Mertz said Black’s arguments came close to the line of influence, but didn’t cross it.
In fact, Mertz complimented Black on his arguments at the beginning and end of the trial.
“The court can’t say the remarks by the prosecutor rose to the level of a denial of due process,” Mertz said. “I think the arguments were carefully crafted, based on variances that could be drawn from evidence, and, in my view, there was no blatant misrepresentation.”
The defense also wanted to put a witness on the stand who signed a sworn affidavit that she had talked to one of the jurors well before the trial about the Skaluba case. That conversation took place well before the jury selection process began, but Wojda said the juror in question voiced her thoughts on the case and how she would convict Skaluba for his alleged crimes. That juror could have poisoned the entire process, Wojda said.
Mertz did not agree and added that, not only did the defense not object to any of Black’s arguments, it also never challenged the juror in question.
“You had every opportunity to ask them anything you wanted,” Mertz said. “Those statements by the juror were made before they received any instructions from the court, and the court presumes the jurors follow instructions, but there hasn’t been any evidence of the contrary. There is no evidence the juror stuck to her opinion.”
The Skaluba case was heavily followed by local media and caught the attention of statewide media, and was fodder on social media where there were many strong opinions shared by those for and against a guilty verdict.
After testimony wrapped up in May, the jury deliberated for two-and-a-half- hours before coming back with the guilty verdict.
Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.com.